Interview: Rebecca Peyton - International Question Time
By Susan Mansfield
Five years on from the murder of BBC journalist Kate Peyton in Somalia, her sister tells Susan Mansfield why she is putting their ordeal on stage
IN LONDON'S Frontline Club, a line of display cases contain mementos from the history of journalism: William Howard Russell's boots, Rory Peck's kilt and sunglasses, a press kit for the launch of Apollo 11, a copy of the "Dodgy Dossier" on Iraq. And, in a frame, a line of sombre photographs: the journalists who went to the conflict zones of the world and did not come home.
When Rebecca Peyton first visited the club with friends in 2006, she was shocked to see her sister's photograph - "the same one I've got in my keyring" - in the frame with the others. Kate Peyton, a BBC journalist shot dead in Somalia in February 2005, was here as "another journalist who died".
That same night Rebecca, an actor, heard Kate's journalist friends ask tough questions about how she came to be in Somalia, and whether her death could have been prevented. She now describes the evening as a "wake-up call" which made her ask some questions of her own,.
"Somebody who knew Somalia very well was saying: 'I'd never have gone. It was way too dangerous. It wasn't her kind of story, what the hell was she doing there?' Others were saying the same sort of thing. It was the kind of conversation that made me feel sick because I so desperately wanted to be able to say, as people said to me, that Kate was doing the job she loved. But I knew she didn't want to be there."
The questions became part of Rebecca's journey which now finds her bringing her one-woman show, Sometimes I Laugh Like My Sister, to the Fringe. She has no axe to grind, she says. Her play is an honest, personal account - sad, funny and occasionally surreal - of the world in which she found herself after Kate's death. Dave Gorman has called it "a piece of honest-to-goodness theatre that's brim full of honesty - and goodness".
Kate Peyton was a producer for the BBC based in Johannesburg when she was asked, in February 2005, with four and a half days' notice, to go to Mogadishu to report on the peace-keeping process. Within hours of arriving in the country, which was then one of the most dangerous places in the world, she was shot in the back outside a hotel by Islamist terrorists targeting Westerners. She was 39.
"She phoned me when she was asked to go," says Rebecca. "She wasn't sure what to do. My mum was going out to see her and the trip clashed with the holiday dates. She said that she'd been told her contract renewal was in doubt, that she had to prove her commitment to the job. Her fiancé had just gone to live with her with his daughter, she couldn't afford to lose her job."
The sisters - Kate was six years older than Rebecca - were very close. "Kate was the first person I contacted about anything at all, we communicated virtually every day. Despite her job, I never really imagined a life without her. I'm still surprised I won't be texting her afterwards going: 'You will not believe this, but I've just been talking to a Scotsman journalist about my show in Edinburgh, isn't it amazing?'" Rebecca was working at a conference in London, filling in between acting jobs, when she took the call saying that Kate had been shot and was in hospital. Then, a few hours later, driving down Charing Cross Road in the rush hour, she took the second call, saying that Kate was dead. Then, she was catapulted into the whirlwind of strangeness that follows a death, magnified because her sister was headline news. Rebecca remembers the thrill - despite the circumstances - of opening the door to BBC journalist Fergal Keane, only to find him sobbing because she reminded him so much of Kate.
The weeks leading up to the inquest into Kate's death in November 2008 turned into a battle with BBC lawyers, who wanted to limit the scope of the investigation to the hours after Kate arrived in Somalia. The family won the right to have the preparation for the trip included. The coroner found that the risk assessments carried out by the BBC were adequate, but that Kate had felt under pressure to accept the assignment. He advised the organisation to reconsider its management of staff serving in dangerous countries.
"The inquest was the most horrendous thing I've ever had to do," says Rebecca who, with her brother Charles, did much of the research for their case. "To find ourselves caught in the wheels of that was so distressing. It was disappointing because we are the biggest fans of the BBC. They set the bar for so many things, press freedom, freedom from editorial control. They are undoubtedly first in the field of journalist safety."
She says she had hoped that an organisation so committed to freedom of information would have approached the inquest with more openness. "We would like to see the sort of investigation which happens in aviation accidents. They don't investigate the pilot, they look into what happened - it's very much about learning new stuff. We've never been after any individual. We wanted to get from the situation things that might be useful to journalists."
Early on, she had started to think about making a piece of theatre about her sister's death and, after the inquest, began work in earnest with her co-writer and director Martin M Bartelt, a former assistant to Pina Bausch.
"Most people don't make shows about their own sister's murder. But I'm a performer, and to me it just seemed really, really instinctive. I felt so exposed by Kate's murder. I felt much more exposed by bursting into tears on the tube at 11pm on a Friday night when I've had half a shandy than I do by doing the play.
"Part of it is definitely about wanting to do something, in the same way as people set up charities, or hold fun runs and tea parties. When a door is opened to you and you're shown a particular world, it changes you. You want to do something engaging and inviting, not feel like a victim. We hope through the particular of my narrative, it might resonate with people, help them to understand something that has happened to them, or someone they know."
She emphasises that, as a lifelong "news junkie" she believes that good foreign reporting is crucial, and that risks to journalists cannot be avoided. "But we feel there should be some sort of conversation about what we ask people to do and how we ask them to do it. These days, people are very interested in where their potatoes were grown, and if any radishes were harmed in the process of making a pie. We should be interested in the business of news, how people go, where they go, what they do while they're there."
• Sometimes I Laugh Like My Sister is at the Pleasance Courtyard, 1pm, until 30 August.